Water disorder

I was amused to see this headline on the local Midlands BBC news feed yesterday, about a giant “water fight” that seems to have got out of hand.

Not only does this feature Birmingham, but it happened in Cannon Hill park, by the Midland Arts Centre, not a hundred yards from the location I was writing about in my blog post a few days ago. Perhaps Todd and Cynthia went back to settle old scores?!

I’m intrigued to know what a water fight is, anyway. The article is remarkably unhelpful, but I’m picturing those big plastic squirty water pistols, or perhaps even paper/plastic “water bombs” filled in the boating lake. Am I being hopelessly naïve? Anyone got any better ideas?

Birmingham rock memorabilia comes home

Well, for a short time, at any rate. Every few months the National Exhibition Centre on the outskirts of Birmingham hosts a huge antiques fair called ‘Art and Antiques for Everyone’, where dealers can set up stalls and sell everything from high-end heirloom pieces to bric-a-brac and kitchenalia. We visited several times when we still lived in the city and always enjoyed poking about, although the prices were a little too high for us to buy much. (So much for the “for everyone” bit in the title!)

This time round it’s not the grandfather clocks, bureaux or candlesticks that have made the news, but rare photos of two Birmingham rock superstars taken by/of Andy Warhol. The first is of Ozzy Osbourne and includes half of Warhol’s face, edge of frame. It was snapped by a friend. The other was taken by Warhol himself and features Simon Le Bon, the lead singer of Duran Duran.

It’s rather nice that pictures of these two Brummie cult icons have ended up for sale in their home city. Less enthralling is the price. The photos are for sale for the eye-watering price of £28,000. And that’s not both together, that’s each.

If you’ve got a spare £56,000 kicking around (in a blue holdall, perhaps *cough*) then you can treat yourself. Otherwise, I suspect they’ll go to some rock memorabilia collector, or perhaps even a museum. So if you’re a fan of Ozzy or Le Bon, you better get your cheque book out and dash over to the NEC before someone else beats you to it!

Peaky Blinders world premiere

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Just in case anyone missed it (like me, sigh), yesterday was the world premiere of the new series (number 5) of Peaky Blinders – and it was held in the series’ home city of Birmingham.

If you did miss it (like me) then you can catch snippets from the event at this BBC live feed, with pics of the cast and crew, mini interviews, news, lego models (yes, really!), and stories from the show’s fans – including one woman whose step-father’s father was a member of the original gang.

I’d still be happier if the series was filmed in Birmingham rather than just premiering there but anyone who reads this blog regularly will already know all about that from my previous grumbles and rants.

In the meantime, this will have to do – at least until the series appears on our screens “later this year”…

Gravy Train locations #3: Todd’s bench

P1000417It doesn’t sound like much of a location for a crime book, does it? A simple wooden bench at the local park. It’s the sort of place you lounge around on a hot day with a book and an ice-lolly, or perch for a few minutes to watch the ducks. Or use as a meeting place when you’re a grass waiting for your police handler, perhaps?

Obviously, it’s the latter in ‘Gravy Train’. When Todd decides to spill the beans he needs somewhere to meet the police inspector he liaises with, in order to pass on his reports. I could have chosen somewhere dark and secretive, but that seemed a little too formulaic – and a little too risky for Todd. Get caught with a female copper in a place no one would ever go and it’s hard to explain it away. Get caught chatting by the boating lake and you can at least say you’re catching up with an old flame. Which in his case isn’t so far from the truth.

He risked a sideways glance. Not in uniform now, just jeans and a belted mac. Was she off-duty, or did she always dress like that? She was plumper than before, but it had been eleven years. Eleven years during which she’d joined the police and risen through the ranks like yeast through dough. Not like him. He was still at the unproven stage; unleavened, lumpy, raw. He cleared his throat. “Yeah. It’s him, isn’t it? Lord High fucking Ball himself.”

“Oh? Last I heard you were happy working for him.”

He thought about that one. Stared out across the lake, full of ducks and model boats. Thought he saw Bradley’s pallid face, rising from the waters like some Arthurian legend he’d read about at school. He blinked. Nope, not going mad. It was just someone’s over-enthusiastic Labrador. “Not like it used to be,” he said at last. “All gone tits up. I’m not comfortable with some of – well, with what he’s asking me to do.”

“Which is…?”

He swallowed. She wasn’t supposed to ask him that. He couldn’t answer, anyway, not without incriminating himself. “Just… general crap. I want out. Thought maybe…” He stared at the lake again, the trees, the grass, the plants and picnickers and people having fun. He remembered fun, too, once. Fun with her, back in the day. But that had been years ago.

The setting I chose is Cannon Hill park in south-east Birmingham. It was donated to the city as meadow-land by local benefactor Miss Louisa Ann Ryland in 1873 and opened soon afterwards, and it’s perfect in so many ways. For starters, it’s just a short walk from where Todd is based, living in Vernon Ball’s basement in nearby Chantry Road. He can scuttle down there, have his meeting with Inspector Charlton, and still get back in time to wash the car. And secondly, it’s huge. A vast green open space covering over 200 acres, in fact, with 80 acres of formal parkland and 120 acres of woodland and “conservation areas”. It’s the most popular public park in Birmingham, and gets plenty of visitors, so there’s less chance of Todd having to hang around the woods by himself. There are several different entrances for him to sneak in and out of, and plenty of secluded corners and unusual features to hide in or behind.

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These include statues, a massive memorial to the fallen of the Boer War, the footings of an old hot-house or conservatory, a working scale model (above) of the Elan Valley reservoirs in Wales that supply Birmingham with its drinking water, and most remarkable of all, an entire medieval pub, the Golden Lion, that was transported and re-erected in the park from nearby Deritend. Along the park’s northern edge it’s bounded by one of Birmingham’s small rivers, the Rea, and also by the modern buildings of the Midlands Arts Centre or MAC (below), which is where Cynthia and her friends appeared from to give Todd a near-heart attack.

smallmac

“Goodness me, you do turn up in some very unusual places,” said a voice dripping with vinegar.

It was Cynthia, emerging from the MAC café behind them with a screeching gaggle of her friends. Noisier than the fucking geese. No wonder the ducks had fled.

Thank Christ – thank fucking Christ – Charlton was still not in uniform. Even so, she’d been on the local news a time or two, reporting progress on this case or that. It wasn’t impossible that Cynthia would recognise her. What to say? What to do? Think, man, think.

Charlton herself turned into an unlikely guardian angel. “Oh, hello, another girlfriend, Todd? Which one’s this?”

“No, no. No. Nothing like that.” He was stammering, he must look like a fucking idiot, but thanks to her, it looked like domestic embarrassment. Nothing worse. “This is Cynthia Ball. My employer’s wife, you know. Cynthia, Suzanne. Suzanne, Cynthia.”

“Delighted, I’m sure.” Cynthia took Charlton’s outstretched hand in a brief, limp grip, then lost interest in anything so dull. “Just the chauffeur, darling,” he heard her say to her friends. “Out with some woman. How sweet.”

He puffed out his cheeks, wondered if this was how it felt to have an actual heart attack. “Fuck me, that was close.”

Todd hangs onto his cover – just – but the ducks do get their revenge. That particular episode is based on personal experience, which should give everyone a laugh. As for Cannon Hill, it’s still one of my all-time favourite parks, even if I now associate it with big tough guys getting pecked on the arse!

GT v5The book is currently on offer as part of the #indiecrimecrawl week, and will also be included in other deals across the summer.

Check my website to keep up with all the latest news, or head to the Down & Out Books bookstore and quote “indiecc20” (until 21st July) to catch that crime crawl deal.

Indie Crime Crawl

I’m dashing in with an extra post today, because I’ve discovered ‘Gravy Train’ is included in the #indiecrimecrawl week of special offers.

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This was organised by Fahrenheit Press and includes themselves (obviously!) and several other independent crime publishers – including my own All Due Respect / Down and Out Books.

The offer runs for one week from 15-21 July, includes all the books in the ADR catalogue, and means you can get at least 20% off the book (more if you buy a few more titles and spend over $50). Just head to the Down and Out bookstore, use the code(s) quoted in the banner above, and hey presto!

I’m a little late blogging about this, but there’s still time to catch that ride so jump on board now and see where the journey takes you…

 

Harrowing? Quite the opposite

harrowI’m delighted to see the new season of Aussie crime drama ‘Harrow’ back on the Alibi channel on Tuesday nights (starting last night, for anyone who hadn’t spotted it). For some reason the critics regularly slate this series, but I got hooked on season one and thought it was much better than they suggest.

On the surface it’s light-hearted crime-solving froth, with lots of personal relationships (ex-wives, daughters who get themselves into trouble, colleagues who date one another) and a standard format of one dead body per episode, plus an over-arching story arc. But it’s that arc that keeps things interesting, because it’s surprisingly dark. Dark enough to almost count as noir, and certainly dark enough to stop the whole series becoming whimsical.

On top of that there’s great chemistry between the various main characters including Harrow himself (a police pathologist played rather well by Ioan Gruffudd), his gay understudy, a gruff detective, and their female boss. Personally I could do with less of the gloopy stuff – Harrow’s on-off relationship with his ex-wife is getting tedious and his daughter is just a liability – and some of the mannerisms. You could start a drinking game with the number of times Harrow tilts his head to one side, for instance. And the plot throws in occasional clunkers, like last night’s Implausible Moment of the Week when the police burst in, armed and apparently without a warrant, at just the right time…

But overall this is a decent crime drama with reasonably inventive plots, some solid, likeable characters, an unusually dark undercurrent, and some wonderful one-liners. Look out for it on Alibi if you haven’t tried it yet.

Dead Air review

deadairPeople are always telling me how dark Iain Banks’ writing is, so when I read my only previous example of his work, ‘The Crow Road’, I was surprised because it didn’t seem very dark at all. So when I found a copy of ‘Dead Air’ on a book sale stall at last year’s Crime and Publishment event, I was in two minds whether to pick it up or not. I did, but it languished on my ‘to be read’ pile for well over a year before I eventually took the plunge. And boy, what did I nearly miss.

It’s an amazing book. Well written, obviously, because this is Banks. Lots of wry humour. Characters that jump off the page after no more than half a dozen lines of dialogue. An intriguing recent-historical setting against the backdrop of global jitters following the attack on the World Trade Center. And yes, some much darker plot-lines as the main character, radio ‘shock-jock’ Ken, gets sucked into the murky shallows of organised crime almost without noticing.

What almost put me off reading the book was the mention of the Twin Towers – a harrowing event which, even the best part of 20 years later, I really don’t want to read about. However, in spite of a big mention in the book’s blurb, it hardly appears in the narrative, except as a constant background presence in much the same way as the late 90s cocaine culture. So I needn’t have worried after all.

I loved the main character, Ken. He was endearing but also irritating, a bit of a know-it-all but ultimately naïve. Watching him rush headlong into dangerous waters was like watching a good mate do something stupid; I found I was almost reading the pages between my fingers. But that shows how well-rounded a personality he was, and how much I cared. Other characters were great too.  I’d have loved to see more of Ed, the verbally challenged, opinionated Black Best Friend with a penchant for saying ‘Wot?’, and Ken’s bantering, bickering relationship with his on-air producer Phil was a joy. Female characters were perhaps less well-drawn; Ken’s girlfriend Jo felt under-developed and even the main luurve interest Celia, a very untypical gangster’s moll and obviously a strong and characterful woman, had a tendency to turn into eye candy. A few too many physical descriptions of her amazing sexiness and beauty, perhaps. Then again, knowing Ken’s character, that’s probably what he would notice about her.

In the end I gave the book four stars on Goodreads. It would have been five plus, except for one section in the middle where all narrative vanished, replaced by a series of apparently disconnected fragments of dialogue between un-named characters. Some of them were obvious (Ed’s ‘wot’ for instance) but I never did work out who many of them were meant to represent – or what purpose they served. It was all rather confusing, and dragged me out of the story just when it was getting really interesting. An odd choice (by writer? or editor?) to leave that section in.

One or two readers have compared my books to Iain Banks and on the basis of ‘The Crow Road’ I couldn’t see why. However, reading ‘Dead Air’, I began to have a glimmer of what they meant. A focus on the people rather than the plot; on criminals or losers rather than a detective solving a crime. And some of the same dry gallows humour, perhaps. I could never hope to be as good as him, of course, but it’s nice to even be thought of in the same company!

Follow the Money 1, Tess 0

After my somewhat critical review of Follow the Money season three in Punk Noir magazine the other day, I’m left eating my rather stylish hat.

Because no sooner was the ink dry on my blog post than I came across this little piece on the BBC News website, which could have been lifted word for word from the Follow the Money script.

In this case, the Metropolitan Police, HM Revenue & Customs, and the Financial Conduct Authority are joining forces to investigate Bureaux de Change and currency transfer businesses in London that are suspected of laundering money made through the illegal drugs trade. Almost exactly the model young punk Nicky was aiming to set up in Copenhagen in Follow the Money.

It’s probably pure coincidence, but I can’t help wondering if someone high up in one of those organisations watched the series and said ‘hey, guys, what if that’s happening here?’. Either that, or the writers at Follow the Money use the occasional crystal ball.

Either way, the storyline was obviously hugely well-researched and relevant to today’s criminal enterprises. I’m impressed with the authenticity, but I still think it would have made even better drama if the series had focussed on the crime rather than the various characters’ personal lives. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I? Anything to save having to eat that hat…

A ‘punchy’ review of Gravy Train

GT v5There’s a brand new review of ‘Gravy Train’ on Amazon this week, and I’m particularly thrilled by it because it gives the book five stars and a really nice write-up.

Describing the whole thing as ‘punchy’, it praises the love ’em or loathe ’em characters, the fast pace, and the descriptions of Birmingham’s underbelly (more on that in the next few days).

You can read the whole thing here, and if it tempts you into trying the book too then thank you! And I hope you enjoy it every bit as much.

When Follow the Money stops following the money…

ftm3-credit-drWhat happens when Scandi-noir TV drama Follow the Money stops doing what it does best?

That’s a question I asked myself throughout the third season, shown recently here in the UK on BBC4. It took me a while to sort through my reactions, but I scribbled down a few thoughts and Paul Brazill has kindly published them at Punk Noir magazine.

Have a shuftie and see whether you agree with me – or not! I’ll be interested to find out.

Edited to add: for some reason that official poster makes the three leads look like vampires! But I can assure you it didn’t go that far off-piste…

Less concrete, more metal

homeofmetalBirmingham often gets a bad press as a dull city full of 1960s concrete and not much else. Nothing could be further from the truth, and every now and again even the national press wake up to the fact. Today it’s the turn of the Guardian, with this fascinating piece about a new Black Sabbath exhibition and the city’s links to the heavy metal scene.

The founding members of Sabbath were from Aston, a suburb just to the north of the city centre which boasts a fine church, a Jacobean hall, and a history that dates back much further than Birmingham itself. Less historic than that, but still an amazing 50 years ago, Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward got together to form the band that would kick start heavy metal around the world. And now their achievement is being recognised with a whole series of events and that exhibition, which kicks off on Wednesday at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

The project as a whole will be known as Home of Metal and there are hopes it will lead to a permanent display space in the city. Which would be good, because at the moment the only nod to Black Sabbath’s achievements is a series of plaques on the Broad Street ‘Walk of Stars‘.

To find out more about the various events, click over to the Guardian article or head to the official Home of Metal webpage which has details of everything that’s going on.